Aubrey Bergauer: To hold on to tradition too tightly will be our downfall

January 2020


I first heard of Aubrey Bergauer in one of my business classes where she was cited because of the way she drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around” (San Jose Mercury News). On a mission to change the narrative for symphony orchestras, she is now the founding executive director for the Center for Innovative Leadership at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. 


Last winter, I was writing an opinion letter arguing that music students have to open their eyes earlier in life to know the opportunities available to them. I reached out to Bergauer to know her thoughts on the topic. “I think so often – almost always – music school focus on primarily one thing, which is training students how to perform, and as a generalization most music school does that exceptionally well – do that one thing exceptionally well. As we know, some students will go on to win jobs, whether they are orchestra jobs or singing in an opera company or whatever, but, as we also know, the supply of musicians completely outstrips the available opportunities in those very specific jobs. And so, the problem is that we have so many students who graduate and have not been trained or even made aware of – in many cases – the entire spectrum of wonderful opportunities that exist in the classical music field.” 


Bergauer and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music are helping students understand that there are many jobs beside performing and that success takes many forms in this industry. For Bergauer, we have to break the mould of this old-school advice that you got to perform and anything else is not viable. “It is really bizarre at best and hurting us at worst that for some reason, as an industry, the stigma is that we do not talk about anything but performing. Other fields do not have this problem: people want to be doctors, lawyers, or go into computer science at a young age – all of those jobs are highly visible, and the related sectors are able to recruit from an early age. Classical music is missing on the opportunity to do that same thing by not talking about the other jobs that are in this industry.” 


Music students know what they are worth, and they love what they do, but fear to “sell themselves.” At the same time, that is one of the important points of entrepreneurship: you need to be able to “sell yourself” (or your product) before others believe in you. “This is part of the quote unquote traditional methodology of teaching students,” says Bergauer. “As performers, in music schools, we are taught to blend in, not to self-promote and that as long as we are technically perfect and musically – again – blending with the whole ensemble, we are fine. That is the whole construct in which centuries of western classical music has been taught.” Music students need to realize that there are aspects of being in this industry that go beyond playing their instruments or singing well. Whether you work in art administration or you start an ensemble, those occupations require skills – whether it is fundraising or marketing, how to form a non-profit or a board of directors and how to manage that board of directors – that are not taught in music school. “We need our talent offstage to match our talent on stage,” says Bergauer, “and it goes back to the entrepreneurial aspect that is missing to the classical music field nowadays.” 


Musicians tend to believe that their music is relevant by itself, but the thing about relevance is that we do not get to decide what is relevant. “We as administrators, managers, musicians, we do not get to decide if what we are doing is relevant; the people that want to come – the audiences, the customers – they are the one that decide what is relevant, what is relevant to them. And they decide that by choosing whether to attend or not an event and to buy or not a ticket. The whole conversation of relevance can really be misguiding because, by nature, by definition, who gets to decide what is relevant means that we have to serve that person or that group of people. Therefore, we must evolve, we must change because the world around us is changing, people in our communities are changing, our audiences are changing. That is just reality, there is nothing bad about it.” 


For Bergauer, the solution toward a more entrepreneurial approach is asking for a cultural change, a systemic one and the good news is that it can be done. “This cultural shift has to come from the top, which is why we need leaders of our institutions – definitely starting at music schools but in our orchestral institutions and opera companies as well – to believe in these things to the point of action, to the point of changing a school curriculum. There are examples of people who have self-promoted and marketed themselves and have enjoyed success because of that. Eventually that will catch on. At the beginning, yes, some of those people will be seen as outsiders because it is breaking a stereotype, it is breaking with tradition, but there will also be other people that see that as success and will want to follow that success. That is sort of how a trend is born. Maybe it is generational, because younger generations understand this idea of influencers and self-promoting as a pathway to opportunities, which is a pathway to greater income. I mean, that is our future, right? So, I think we have to believe that changes are coming and as those people get into more leadership roles the change will continue.”


To make this change happen, we need courage in our leadership, because it takes courage to change a very codify system. “Sometimes we think the stakes are just so high, but there are ways to change that,” says Bergauer. “We can run pilot tests, we can test little things, embrace experiments and see if they make a difference, and when they do, then we go for the bigger scale changes. There are ways to do it where it is not so crazy or not so intimidating. Often it is easier for leaders in our institutions not to change. For a lot of people who have been doing it the same way for years, what is driving resistant is the lack of wanting to put in the work – because it is work – it is a lot of work to do things differently.”


According to Bergauer, to hold on to tradition too tightly will be our downfall. “I think there is a place for tradition, but I think we need to be careful about how we define that, because art in itself should evolve. That is the whole nature of art of any kind. Art can take many forms. For us to say ‘no, art and classical music should only be a reflection of a certain period in time or a certain slice of the world around us’ is completely limiting and opposite to the wonderful things that art is indented to be. When we are talking about classical music, sure we can think about preserving things like organic performance and orchestral musicians working together on a stage and the live music experience, you know how special and impossible to reproduce it is – even recordings do not match the live experience. So yes, let’s all do focus on what makes our artform wonderful and special, but then also let’s not get so mired in that that we cannot see ways that will allow us to push our artform forward, because that is our responsibility as well, as art makers and producers. To be smart about our business is to say, ‘well, how do we design an experience that audiences want to come too and do want to spend their money on?’ That shift is a really big shift away from ‘art is intrinsically valuable’ or ‘the tradition is intrinsically valuable as it is’ and to saying ‘we believe in this art and we love what we do, but we also believe that art is in the eye of the beholder’ so ‘how do we serve the people in order to build an audience?”